Tag Archives: house-of-commons

Norman Baker performing Piccadilly Circus

Norman Baker, political journalism and hinterlands

It’s an odd evening to defend the MP for Lewes, given that his constituents are currently behaving like a bunch of spoiled children blacking up and attempting to set fire to “politically incorrect” effigies. Nonetheless, I share a lot of the views expressed elsewhere that he performed an excellent service in his role as Home Office minister and can well understand his reasons for resigning.

This blog post isn’t about the rights and wrongs of his resignation though. Rather, it’s a simple observation. Most of the media coverage was transfixed by the idea that Norman Baker was in a band, that it isn’t a wildly good one, and that these facts alone are wildly hilarious. Every TV and newspaper report I came across seemed to fit in a quip about it somewhere

I suspect that it doesn’t especially matter that his interests are in music. In fact, the Reform Club’s middle of the road style from what I can make out is pretty inoffensive to anyone. What seemed to provoke the lobby was that he was doing something – anything – that was slightly out of the ordinary.

When that slightly out of the ordinary thing is practicing music skills on a regular basis, you’ve got to wonder how they’d treat any MP who has personal interests that are really unusual.

Several years ago, I spent an enjoyable afternoon at a games club playing a game of Puerto Rico with a Labour MP, at the time a Parliamentary Private Secretary. After the game, we looked over our shoulders to see another group having a raucous game of Cash’n’Guns. He observed “I have to be really cautious about what games I can play in public” at which point I pointed out, to his horror, that he’d just spent the last couple of hours playing a game about the slave trade.

I mention this because he’s right: playing a game in which you wave foam guns in each other’s faces would potentially be career suicide for an aspiring politician, no matter how silly a game it is (which is certainly the case of Cash’n’Guns). But the reason isn’t because doing so would be wrong or wicked in any way, but because it would be seen as weird. And being weird, as Ed Miliband has learned to his cost, is an almost unforgivable crime in modern politics.

The result is, paradoxically, that all our politicians are deeply weird. It’s been almost 40 years since Denis Healey scathingly noted that Margaret Thatcher lacked a hinterland. These days almost none of them have one. William Hague is allowed to write books, albeit on political history. Beer and football are permitted interests, as is primetime television (in moderation). But anything else is treated as shameful and hidden from view, a bit like being gay in the 1950s.

But the weirdest thing about all this is that at the same time, being “wacky” is increasingly the norm for how political journalism is conducted. The model established by Andrew Neil on This Week and the Daily Politics, has now become ubiquitous. Politics is now typically presented on television by people who can’t wait to dress up in silly costumes or wear outrageous hats to make some leaden point or other. Newspaper journalists all seem to consider themselves to be side-splittingly hilarious comedians if my twitter feed is anything to go by. Norman Baker’s crime seems to have been to be sincere in his interests. If he’d done an appallingly awful duet with the chief correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, then it would have been considered perfectly acceptable and not even worthy of mention.

We expect politicians to be “real” and then lay into them when they are. That doesn’t seem terribly healthy to me.

Electoral Mythbusting 2: spotlight on Labour and boundary changes

The proposal to hold a referendum on changing the electoral system to the Alternative Vote is Labour’s policy, so you would have thought they’d be delighted that the coalition government is going ahead with it, wouldn’t you? The problem is, a) Labour’s commitment to the policy is at least partly tactical (designed to appeal to Lib Dem voters – and Lib Dem MPs in the event of a hung parliament. Ironically, the effect was to make a Lib-Tory coalition more likely) and b) the Tories are insisting on implementing the policy alongside their own reforms of reducing the number of MPs by 10% and “equalising” constituency boundaries in order to remove a perceived bias in favour of the Labour Party. Labour politicians are up in arms at this and are threatening to bring down the whole bill.

To those of us outside the big two parties, this debate is somewhat baffling. They are throwing claims and counterclaims at each other regarding “gerrymandering” with seemingly no self-awareness at the fact that the current system (and even AV) gives both parties a tremendous inbuilt advantage that no other party enjoys. The sense of entitlement on both camps is eye-watering. But, that aside, can we legitimately accuse the Tory proposal as “gerrymandering”?

First of all, if you support single member constituencies, then you support in principle the idea that constituency boundaries should be drawn up in such a way that give different parties an advantage over another party. That is gerrymandering by another name. The reason for this is basic mathematics and gets to the heart of why no system which uses single member constituencies exclusively can be called proportional. It is best illustrated by what is known as the “gerrymander wheel“. The wheel shows how you can dramatically change the expected seat share each party gets simply by drawing the boundaries slightly differently. It is a problem with any electoral system with constituency boundaries, but the problem is greatly reduced even with two member constituencies with multi-member constituencies it rapidly becomes difficult to gerrymander.

But there is another factor, and this is something that both the Tories and Labour have got completely wrong. The fundamental problem the Tories have under FPTP is not the way the boundaries are drawn up but where their votes are. Simply put, Labour’s supporter base is spread across the country while the Tories tends to be concentrated in specific areas. This means that no matter how much you redraw the boundaries, Labour will still do better than the Tories nationwide while the Tories will always tend to have a concentration of safe seats (all things being equal).

The result is, any attempt to redraw the boundaries is unlikely to change very much, as two seperate academic studies have shown. So why is Labour getting so het up about it? Well, a factor is almost certainly the opposition party playing opposition games, but they do have one point: with millions of people not on the electoral register, some constituencies contain many more people than the election results suggest. This tends to be a particular problem in urban areas, which are typically more Labour than Tory. It is a problem that Labour had 13 years to sort out and refused to, so it would be nice if we heard a little more humility about it, but that isn’t the fault of the people affected, and I would agree that this should be taken into account.

What this can’t be used as however, is an excuse to not hold a boundary review, or an argument against equalisation. It certainly wasn’t during the two boundary reviews conducted under Labour and we certainly should not assume that those “missing” voters would all vote Labour given half a chance, no matter how great Labour’s capacity for self-delusion might be. With a census due to take place next year, this is in fact a good time to conduct a boundary review taking this fresh data into consideration. The Electoral Commission are already in the process of studying how complete and accurate registers are (pdf), and so long as the Boundary Commission are required to take this into consideration (in a transparent way), I can see no reason not to proceed at this point. The Electoral Reform Society have suggested that it might even be slightly beneficial to Labour; so be it. I suspect these details will all get thrashed out in committee in any case.

But there are two other objections to this agenda which are also being bandied about. One is that the combined effect of “reduction and equalise” will be to weaken the constituency link by ending the practice of having constituencies reflect local communities. The other is that reducing the number of MPs is itself undemocratic and bad for Parliament.

Superficially, there seems to be some truth to the first argument, which does make a bit of a nonsense out of the Tories’ claim to be the great defenders of the single member constituency link. How can you argue for that in principle, while reducing the degree to which constituencies reflect communities? And of course, I should include my own disclaimer that as far as I am concerned, anything that weakens the single member constituency link and results in MPs doing their job as legislators instead of their phoney job as social workers, is an entirely good thing. Bring it on.

But let’s not fool ourselves that the current system does a good job at reflecting communities; it doesn’t. That is due to three reasons: there is no fixed size for a “community”, the average constituency size doesn’t come close to reflecting the typical community and the concept of community itself is more mutable than it was, say, 100 years ago.

Here, for example are all the constituencies I have ever lived in:

  • Ravensbourne (Bromley), which incorportated the council wards of: Biggin Hill, Bromley Common & Keston, Darwin, Hayes, Martins Hill and Town, West Wickham North and West Wickham South. As a West Wickham resident, I considered my “area” to be West Wickham, Pickhurst, Hayes and Bromley. Biggin Hill might as well have been on the other side of the planet. I couldn’t even tell you where Martins Hill is.
  • Manchester Gorton (Manchester), which incorporated the council wards of: Fallowfield, Gorton North, Gorton South, Levenshulme, Longsight and Rusholme. As a student, I identified with the Oxford Road corridor, which incorporated much of Manchester Central. Much of Rusholme was, in fact, in Moss Side ward (Manchester Central). Much of Fallowfield was, in fact, in Withington (Manchester Withington). I very occasionally saw people in Levenshulme. Gorton was a completely different place, both ethnically and in terms of student population (I also lived in Central and Withington at various times, the same basic pattern applied).
  • Leeds Central (Leeds), which contained various wards in central Leeds, most of which had little in common other than that they were in Leeds itself. Leeds North West, where I was agent in 2001, was even more disparate. Shaped like an ice cream cone, it included the student-heavy Headingly at one end and the rural villages of Otley and Wharfedale at the other.
  • Warwick and Leamington (Warwickshire): To the extent that this constituencies contained two distinct communities, I suppose it counts. But even then, it wasn’t entirely cut and dried, as at the time it also included half of Kenilworth.
  • Hendon (Barnet), which currently includes Burnt Oak, Colindale, Edgware, Hale, Hendon, Mill Hill and West Hendon. Again, most of these places might as well not exist as far as I’m concerned. I live in Mill Hill and own a flat in Colindale. I’ve been to Edgware once in my life and Hendon not much more frequently. Finchley and Golders Green, where I lived shortly prior to now, was also two extremely distinct communities (if not more).

Looking at all these constituencies, a pattern quickly forms. The size of the constituency is such that as far as local identification is concerned they are neither fish nor fowl. You DO get identifiable communities at a council ward level, you can even make a case for a community at local authority level (although in both cases there will always be issues around boundaries), but constituencies are typically at such a size that they should be regarded, at best, as collections of multiple communties. Indeed, within London the boundaries have got even stranger since this election, with numberous constituencies crossing local authority boundaries (I am technically a member of Lewisham and Beckenham North Liberal Democrats for example, and Hampstead and Kilburn is an aggregate of Brent and Camden wards).

Reduction and equalisation won’t change that. The tighter equalisation rules might, around the edges, cause a few more odd boundaries through the middle of towns and villages, but for the vast majority of constituents, their constituency will be the same impersonal lump it was before the change. Equally, there will no doubt be some areas that become more coherent as a result of the boundary changes. One of the advantages of STV is that by creating larger multi-member constituencies, each one would conceivably represent a more meaningful piece of geography such as a county or a borough, but that is another matter.

Of course there is also the fact that people’s sense of place differs wildly depending on their lifestyle. As a public transport user for example, my bit of North London is effectively Mill Hill, Finchley and, to a lesser extent, Golders Green – i.e. the bits which I go to frequently because of my daily commute. I can’t even get to Hendon directly by bus or tube. If I used a car, I would no doubt have a different perspective. “My” Manchester involved both sides of Oxford Road, from the centre out to Fallowfield – but that was because I was a student. As we all become more mobile and more culturally diverse, talk of constituencies needing to represent distinct communities becomes increasingly bunk. So to get precious about the constituency sizes we have now is frankly silly.

The final objection is that reducing the number of MPs would be bad for democracy, yet the House of Commons is unusually large by international standards. ERS have included a comparative table here. The conclusion they invite the reader to draw is that the UK doesn’t have a particularly oversized Parliament after all, but I’m not convinced. After all, the statistics do indeed show that the UK House of Commons is large by global standards.

For starters, the assertion that only countries with federal systems should have smaller Parliaments is a little dubious. Certainly, countries with legislative chambers at a sub-national level have fewer things for their legislatures to do, but it doesn’t follow that you therefore need more bodies to do it. MPs all have to vote on the same number of laws, no matter how many MPs there happen to be. And while, conceivably, more MPs means more people who can share the load in terms of scrutiny, in practice it doesn’t work that way.

For example, the Commons Select Committees have just been reduced in size from 18 members down to 11. Far from being about reducing the amount of scrutiny, this is actually about ensuring there is more. In the past, each select committee effectively consisted of a hardcore and a group of malleable part timers who would contribute very little and were more susceptable to influence from whips. Smaller committees are generally regarded as better in terms of building a consensus and doing the hard work.

I don’t have statistics, and would love to see them, but I would guess that public bill committees tend to be dominated by a bunch of usual suspects. Similarly, you either have an MP who reads things like papers on statutory instruments, or you don’t. It isn’t the number of MPs, or even the number of laws particularly that is the issue here, but the culture in Parliament that seems to reward citizens advice over and above legislating.

Either way, a reduction of MP numbers by 10% is unlikely to have much impact. A bigger reduction might do, for the simple fact that we have such a large payroll vote with our current system of government. But 10% is unlikely to have that much of an impact, and we should be reducing the payroll vote (if not seperating the legislature from the executive altogether) in any case. Another useful thing would be to increase the amount of research staff each party is entitled to employ, which would arguably do a far better job at ensuring there is more scrutiny than a handful of extra MPs at £100,000+ a throw.

Ultimately then, neither the “reduction” or the “equalise” part of these reforms are likely to make much of a difference, either to the political breakdown in the House of Commons or the nature of MP’s roles. Reforming the voting system to AV may be a modest reform, but compared to either of these tiny steps it is revolutionary. They are certainly a price I have no problem paying in order to keep the Tories happy (although it looks as if some backbenchers are determined to scupper the referendum bill in any case). What I find baffling is why Labour are claiming that some kind of massive point of principle is under threat here, when for the most part they are just totemic changes. Watching both parties scrap in this debate looks remarkably similar to two bald men fighting over a comb.

EXPOSED: The Tories’ secret plan to prevent hung parliaments

Much has been made in the media this weekend of the Tories’ secret plan to increase VAT immediately after the election, if they win outright on Thursday. But it is becoming increasingly clear that they have another secret plan they aren’t telling anybody about: a plan to prevent future hung parliaments.

Right or wrong (and all the facts show they are dangerously wrong), one thing that the Tories have made perfectly clear in this election is that they are fundamentally opposed to having to share power with anyone. This of course makes a complete nonsense of the title of their manifesto (“an invitation to join the government of Britain” – have you noticed they are now emphasing not our place in government, but our status as mere contractors with government?), but that’s by the by.

Howver, there are two problems they have. The first one is the dirty little secret that WE ALREADY HAVE a hung parliament, and have had one for years. The House of Lords has been hung since the early noughties. Tory policy is now to “seek consensus” on creating a “substantially elected House of Lords” (presumably under their policy the appointed element will be to ensure the House has a single party majority but they are keeping conspicuously quiet about that) but since they are the only ones who disagree with the consensus that it should be elected using a proportional system, that won’t be achieved any time soon. It is well understood that if the Tories win an outright majority on Thursday, then Lords reform is dead as an issue for the next five years.

That leaves “Dave” with the power to appoint life peers on a whim, and the commitment to prevent hung parliaments. The current House of Lords has 704 members, 188 of whom are Tories. To form a majority and prevent a hung parliament, Cameron’s oft-repeated aim, he will need to appoint at least 300 Tories to the red leather benches.

Where will these 300 people come from? One can assume that a large tranche will be failed Commons candidates, meaning that even if you manage to vote down your local Tory candidate, they will be sitting in the legislature in a matter of weeks. We can also safely assume that they will come from the ranks of the businessmen and millionaires who have been bankrolling their campaign, including this delightful bunch of evangelical Christians.

This hasn’t come from nowhere. Back in October, the Times was openly speculating on the Tories appointing dozens of peers if they won the election before, presumably, such talk got stamped on by Andy Coulson and his close links with News International. But it is clear from the last few weeks that the Tories secret plan goes much, much further than even this.

But believe it or not, it actually gets worse. The biggest problem with the Tories’ war against hung parliaments is that with each election the chances of one forming increases as the country embraces multi-party politics. In 1951, 96.6% of voters supported one of the two main parties. In 2005, that figure was as low as 67.6%. The thing about FPTP is that if the vote share is evenly spread amongst 3 or 4 parties it ceases to return mostly single party majorities and starts becoming scarily random. Fundamentally, we remain stuck in hung parliament territory.

The Tories will be looking at Canada at the moment, which has had three hung parliaments in six years, and realising that even if that doesn’t happen here in 2010, we are heading in that direction. To prevent this, Cameron cannot rely on argument alone, he will have to change the system itself.

That means adopting a similar system to the ones they operate in those great bastions of economic and political stability Greece and Italy whereby the party which wins the largest share of the vote is given a bonus number of seats to ensure that it almost always wins an outright majority. Those bonus MPs would have no constituency and would be only answerable to the party itself. This is what is known as “strong government”.

Think this is fantasy? The Tory rhetoric over the past couple of weeks makes it clear that they will do everything in their power to prevent hung parliaments and having to share power with anyone. Therefore it is inevitable that they will have to adopt both these measures. While I am sure they will claim they have “no plans” to do either of these things, that is what they said about raising VAT.

Fundamentally, can you believe a word any of them say? We need to prevent all this by denying them a victory on Thursday. The polls this Sunday are quite consistent: while Lib Dem support is wavering slightly, we are still in a position to win the biggest share of the vote if the young people who have flocked to us over the last few days turn out rather than staying at home. They aren’t switching to either Labour or the Tories. So let’s get out there and enthuse them.

Electoral reform and Parliament

At some point I need to write a comprehensive blog post about where I stand on AV. Today it not the time. But what I will say in response to last night’s vote in Parliament is that I find it appalling that MPs can be so complacent about how we actually count our votes whilst obsessive and dictatorial about as ephemeral an issue as when the votes are actually counted. It isn’t that I don’t think there is any merit in counting the ballot as quickly as possible – the more ballot boxes left overnight the more chance of ballot stuffing after all. But it just isn’t an issue worth getting exercised about.

In fairness to MPs, the blogosphere seems just as obsessed. Truly we are in the End Times.

Marx, Marquises and Marquand

David Marquand is offering the Liberal Democrats some advice, graciously for free, over on Our Kingdom.

First of all he denounces us for having “more unelected legislators than elected ones” and concludes that this proves that we “can’t be taken seriously as an agent of democratic change.” Unbeknownst to anyone else until now, this is apparently the magic formula for testing whether party is establishment or not. On this formulation – praise the Lord! – Labour is the most anti-establishment party in the country. The fact that they happen to actually run everything is a mere detail that we can safely ignore. Either way, it is likely to rejoin the establishment in May after which point David Cameron will be leading the anti-establishment vanguard.

He goes on to suggest that “surely it would be possible for the Lib Dem leader to announce that he will hold party elections – including Lib Dem voters, not just members – to decide which people will be nominated to serve in the Lords.”

A few points. Firstly, unlike any other party we do elect our peers – or at least a panel of individuals get to select them from an elected list. We don’t run elections for specific places because we don’t know when the next rounds of appointment are likely to take place, or how many will be appointed at that stage, and when we do know we typically get just a few weeks’ notice. With that in mind the panel option is the best one available. Secondly, with the sole exception of Sue Garden, the Lib Dems have had no new appointments to the Lords since the dissolution honours in 2005 – this in stark contrast to the swelling Labour and Tory ranks. Thirdly, dissolution honours are only available to just-retired MPs – no chance of an election there. Fourthly, if Labour hadn’t reneged on its promise in the Cook-Maclennan agreement to ensure that the Lords was roughly proportional to the votes cast in the previous general election we would have something like 100 more peers. The idea that the Lib Dems are somehow sitting pretty in the Lords is laughable.

Could the Lib Dems make the process more democratic? Certainly. We could have ordered lists for instance and insist that people should be selected in order (although since the list would have to be published it would quickly become apparent which candidates had been blackballed by the authorities). However, a proper selection process would cost tens of thousands of pounds and amount to a serious drain on resources. If we were to take Marquand’s advice and let the public participate in these elections they would cost even more. Either way they would amount to a serious distraction for the party. And that is assuming that we will ever see another Liberal Democrat appointed to the Lords at all.

Marquand argues that we should do this because it “would punch a huge hole in the present system, shame the other parties, and infuriate the Whitehall mandarinate.” Would it? I would imagine that most people would react with complete indifference. The fact that we already have the most democratic system doesn’t seem to impress anyone. I write as someone who sat on the working group that came up with the current system. It certainly was a fight to get the party whigs to concede every minor point. When I started on the party’s Federal Executive I was a true believer and really thought that such posturing made a difference; now I’m not convinced it amounts to anything. We need reform, not a vanity project so we can pat ourselves on the back for being so worthy. Empty gestures do not an anti-establishmentarian make.

There is an alternative proposal which has been aired from time to time and that is to boycott the Lords appointments entirely. If anything I think I have veered towards this view in recent years. It certainly has the merit of being the simpler option. Once again however, would anyone care? If we’d started a boycott four years ago it would have meant we’d have one fewer life peer. Big deal. Would anyone have noticed?

Even more radical would be to get our people to walk out of the Lords entirely (let’s leave aside their willingness to not claim attendence allowance and other expenses for a second). But here’s the thing: in the real world (as opposed to that bubble in which a lot of people seem to exist where the House of Lords is full of independent-minded sages), the Lib Dems hold the balance of power in the Lords. If they hadn’t been sitting there doing their jobs then, however illiberal government legislation is right now, it would now be significantly worse. Given that this fact is widely unrecognised, do you really think people would even notice a boycott? It is Trot tactics and is likely to make as much impact in the public consciousness as all Trot tactics.

But wait, he has more. Apparently we should also reject any notion of attempting to reform the current system and instead “transcend capitalism altogether.” He helpfully adds that “I don’t begin to know how to do this” and that “it wouldn’t be practical politics in the short term” but suggests that the answer lies in reading more Marx.

Would it be uncharitable of me to point out that David Marquand, a public school educated Oxford graduate, a former MP, a protege of the ever clubbable Lord Jenkins, a reformed Social Democrat and Blairite, a longstanding member of the mainstream media’s commentariat and an admirer of David Cameron, is a little bit on the establishment side himself? Most of his advice here amounts to little more than ‘japes’ of dubious tactical or strategic merit. Former members seldom make the most objective of critics; are we really to believe he has our best interests at heart?

The House of Lords is a dreadful anachronism and not democratically legitimate, but at least the fact that no party has control of it means that it is a place where politics actually happens. The House of Commons by contrast is totally dominated by the executive and, in a very real sense, apolitical (unless you count jeering loudly at opponents as some kind of meaningful activity). The control of the whips is so absolute that even pragmatic amendments get blocked in the Commons for fear of giving MPs ideas above their station. Obsessing about the “establishment” nature of the Lords is simply posturing while the Commons is an open sewer. No doubt Marquand’s answer to that should be we should boycott Commons elections until we have “shamed” the other parties into reforming it. But the other parties don’t have any shame; that’s the point.

As for economics, if the Green Party wants to spend the next 30 years discovering an alternative to capitalism, then good luck to it. This investigation hasn’t done it much good over the previous 30 years and we are still paying the price for the Communists’ alternative. If this is what it means to be anti-establishment, I hope you don’t mind if I carry on with actually trying to make the world a better place.

So where do we go from here?

The most fascinating aspect of the expenses scandal is how quickly the debate has moved onto a debate about meaningful democratic and constitutional reform. I have to admit, I didn’t quite see it coming, and while there have been rumbles within what you might call the “democratic reform community” about making a big push in the run up to the general election, it seemed to be more driven by the need to be seen to be doing something rather than a belief that it would actually happen.

Yet things have moved on very quickly. I’ve been amazed at the number of Labour politicians who have come out of the woodwork in recent weeks and professed support for, not merely electoral reform, but actual proportional representation. It is fair to say this has been rumbling on for a while now. Compass, and with it Jon Cruddas MP, came of the fence a couple of months ago. Today we see Alan Johnson out himself as well.

Just six months ago, the orthodoxy amongst electoral reformers in the Labour Party was to bang on about Alternative Vote as being the only option – a ludicrous notion since it would cost almost as much pain to achieve but with almost none of the benefits of full electoral reform. Johnson and others are still talking about the Jenkins proposals – a failed and rather complex fudge designed to keep Tony Blair happy which I am sure Roy Jenkins himself would have disowned by now had he lived long enough. But either way we are a long way from having to decide precisely what system should be used; the call at this stage is for a referendum to be held on the same day as the general election to establish the principle.

The important thing that needs to be emphasised is that mere proportional representation is not enough. Peter Kellner (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/politics-the-only-way-is-up-1690137.html) is half right when he says PR has “nothing to do with probity.” Mark Thompson has done a splendid job demonstrating how the first-past-the-post system and expenses abuse are inextricably linked (this is a brilliant example about how a single blog post can influence a national debate, given the number of times I’ve read or heard it referred to by people in the mainstream media over the past week).

Most PR systems in fact do increase probity, but it isn’t the proportionality that does this but the way they allow voters to choose between candidates within a single party. The list system used for the European Elections does not allow for this and we ought to rule it out for Westminster elections straight away. The Additional Member System used for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly is an improvement but is still limiting (the Welsh Assembly rule against ‘dual candidacy’ gives voters even less choice).

While my personal preference would be single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies, I would be content with any open list system that allows voters to select from candidates rather than parties. The size of the constituency matters too. As we saw in the Scottish local elections in 2007, three member constituencies don’t really allow for much competition within parties at all.

For many people, including some Liberal Democrats, talk of PR is intolerable because it threatens the “constituency link.” The “constituency link” is in fact one of the most pernicious aspects of modern politics. Of course MPs should have a sense of place, but the idea that they should all be responsible for their own relatively small parishes is ludicrous. As Simon Jenkins has cogently argued, as MPs have transformed themselves into caseworkers over the past few decades, they have conspired to strip local government of its authority. And as Andrew Rawnsley puts it, the Liberal Democrats bear a large amount of responsibility for this. Our use of “pavement politics” (which isn’t the same thing as community politics, but rather a perversion of it) as a tool for gaining MPs has made a lot of sense in terms of narrow party interest but has actually hurt the causes for both decentralisation and electoral reform. With the political system in flux and Chris Rennard no longer in the captain’s chair, we have a real opportunity to rethink this.

The biggest irony is that the MP-constituency link is at its closest in the Republic of Ireland, where they have STV. Indeed, Conservative peer David Trimble spends his retirement in the House of Lords railing against it for precisely the opposite reasons that his leader opposes it. To be fair, he has a point, but while Ireland has an average of 26,000 people per elector, in the UK it is closer to 90,000. Irish politics is dominated by two parties divided by history rather than ideology – a state of affairs which is gradually breaking down over time. In the UK, the main thing that causes parties to fight on similar ideological ground is FPTP. In other words, while STV would inevitably lead to more accountability in the UK, we have no reason to expect that the parochialism of Irish politics will come along with it.

Electoral reform is the sine qua non; the one thing that seperates the genuine reformers from the people simply attempting to profit from the debacle – no wonder the Telegraph is in such a flap about it (electoral reform? Fuck! No! More Tories! That’s the answer! Honest!). But won’t be sufficient in my view and will be subject to a full onslaught by the Tory press. For that reason, reformers need to arm themselves with a number of other reforms too. The question is, what?

I don’t think the time has come for a full written constitution to sort everything out, although I do think we’ll have one within 20 years due to a number of factors (if you want to know why precisely, you’ll need to read Unlocking Democracy: 20 Years of Charter 88 and in particular its concluding chapter). Short of that, there have been a lot of suggestions doing the rounds, some of which are better than others.

I’m all for reducing the number of MPs (something which the Tories are demanding, despite the fact it would weaken their precious constituency link), but one of the practical problems the Lib Dems’ Better Governance Working Group came across when we considered this in 2007 was the impact it would have in increasing the dominance of the payroll vote in the House of Commons. Ultimately, I think David Starkey is right: we need to seperate the legislature and the executive entirely. In the short term however, we could simply get rid of the convention that ministers must also be parliamentarians. It is a nonsense in any case which has lead to the Lords being stuffed with placemen despite the fact that their Commons shadows can’t actually ask them any questions. Worried about democratic accountability? Then let them address the Commons regardless of their membership and subject appointments to parliamentary scrutiny.

I’m all for lowering the barriers to get involved in politics and introducing primaries, but let’s not kid ourselves that it will lead to any great increase in participation. If the low level of participation in US primaries (other than major contests such as the presidential nomination) doesn’t convince you, then what about the tiny level number of voters who took part in Jury Team? Opening up the selection of party leaders would be a positive step forward but for parliamentary candidates it would be little more than a figleaf. In any case, the effect of electoral reform would be to introduce a system which in effect combines the functions of both a primary and election.

Recall is problematic. Without electoral reform it would be pernicious, making MPs in marginal constituencies even more vulnerable while leaving MPs in safe seats relatively untroubled. Nick Clegg’s proposal of only allowing recall if the MP in question has been caught breaking the rules is equally problematic: who decides if they broke rules and wouldn’t a vote be little more than a formality if they were censured in such a way? Why not just go straight for a by-election.

With electoral reform however, on reflection (you’ll notice I’ve changed my mind here), I can see it working, if the recall petitions are for recalling all the MPs representing the constituency in question rather than just one of them. That way, it can’t be used simply to force out minority parties.

Finally, there is the question of party funding. There are, in my view, strong arguments for incentive-based funding systems (e.g. small donations up to £50 get matched by state support on a pound-for-pound basis, thereby encouraging parties to collect comparatively small donations from a wide base), but I am under no illusions that now is not the time to win that argument. What most certainly does need to be introduced is a cap on donations so that rich people and union chiefs can’t simply buy the system. Both Labour and the Conservatives have at various times over the past few years claimed to support this in principle but both are totally compromised by a dependency on, respectively, the unions and Lord Ashcroft’s cronies.

The Lib Dems have a window of opportunity to force this issue. As I wrote last month, the party should unilaterally impose a cap of its own. The Michael Brown story rumbles on and Clegg’s defence looks pretty thin. It is time we did something to signal that we have learned from our mistakes (and they are mistakes – I don’t care how many checks you make, you should never take millions of pounds from someone who you’ve only known a couple of months).

Anything else? Lords reform would be nice, but must take a lower priority until the Commons is sorted out first in my view (12 months ago, when the prospect of Commons reform was a distant possibility, the calculation was different). I’d still like to see us move towards agenda initiative and veto. Without a written constitution however, a full system of citizens initiative and referendum would be highly problematic. It would be mistaken though to think we can fit every reform anyone has ever wanted into this narrow window of opportunity. The good news is that if we can fix the Commons, the prospect of more democracy further down the line can only be increased.

If you’re not cop, you’re little people.

With the Convention on Modern Liberty now less than a week away, the Sunday papers have been filled with revelations about MP’s making extraordinary claims on their Additional Costs Allowance. I can’t help but feel the two are inextricably linked.

I’ve spent pretty much my whole career defending politicians – first as a paid party organiser and, more recently, working for a cross-party pressure group. I still believe in representative democracy (although I’m aware it has its limitations), I still believe that political parties are necessary (ditto). I defend the right of MPs to draw out of pocket expenses (indeed many ‘expenses’ are in fact office costs); I would even defend ministers having access to the car pool. But I find it extraordinary at how the political class, as a whole, seems to go out of its way to render itself indefensible (and while there are plenty of honorable exceptions, it does appear to be the class as a whole – why else is it that when we hear about the latest scandals about a few bad apples, no action seems to get taken?). The key question is why?

The main problem appears to be a total disconnect with the public. Has this always been the case? I think it probably has, but as the age of deference has come to an end, politicians have only discovered the values in mouthing platitudes about being the servants of the people. Making the actual changes necessary to make it a reality still escapes them.

So it is that Michael Ancram, the 13th Marquess of Lothian and Earl of Ancram, can claim that painting his mansion is “an additional expense which wouldn’t normally occur” if he wasn’t an MP and keep a completely straight face (my other favourite line is ‘He said he was “very careful” and had always taken “satisfaction” in not claiming all his expenses.’ – as if it is okay to fiddle expenses so long as you do it slightly less than somebody else). So it is that Jacqui Smith can max out her expenses paying for her sisters home and be completely nonplussed over what everyone is so annoyed at her for.

The most outrageous thing about the ongoing scandals over Additional Costs Allowance is that the solution is not only simple, but largely government policy. We already operate a scheme whereby ‘key workers’ such as nurses can have a proportion of their new homes bought by the government so that they can afford to live in areas where they are needed but property prices are sky high. When they sell up, the taxpayer gets the equity back (and makes a tidy sum if the property doubles in value). There is nothing – absolutely nothing – to stop MPs from operating a simily equity scheme. Indeed it was actually suggested by a number of MPs as part of a review run by the Speaker last year. Yet the suggestion was rejected out of hand. What possible reason did they have for doing that, other than simple greed (if MPs think they should be better paid and that in lieu of that fiddling expenses is adequate compensation, then let them say so)?

When you are so disconnected from reality, when you have reached a point where all this sort of thing seems normal, is it really any wonder that they value civil liberties so cheaply? If you regard the public as proles who need to be protected for their own good and regard yourself as something else, then why wouldn’t you?

In short, we have reinvented feudalism while no-one was looking (the subservient role local government plays in relation to national government is another aspect of this). Part of the reason it has happened is rooted in our electoral system. Listening to MPs talk about the “constituency link” in semi-mystical terms is extremely reminiscent of how a squire might talk about his God-given stewardship of his fiefdom. Indeed, this is a relatively recent phenomenon; a century ago, MPs generally regarded the constituency as, at best, an inconvenience. These days, MPs seem to be obsessed with casework, at the clear expense of performing their constitutional role as a member of the legislature. MPs then aren’t just condescending about their constituents; they end up with less time to actually scrutinse legislation.

The problem with all this is it isn’t sustainable. With the economy in the parlous state it is in, there is a faint whiff of revolution in the air which looks set to grow stronger as times goes on. Revolutions rarely end well for anyone, and most in reality get pre-empted before they actually happen, yet the political establishment appears to have losts the flexibility which it is famous for. We aren’t getting reform; we aren’t even being given the illusion of reform.

I went to see Mark Thomas live on Thursday. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help but notice that after years of being a cuddly national institution, pulling crazy stunts for the entertainment of the chattering classes, he had a regained certain edge. I have a feeling this is what he was like in the eighties before Channel Four took him under its wing. At times, he simply descended into swearing tirades. Now, I seriously doubt that Mark Thomas will become a latter day Cromwell or Lenin, but it was notable at how indulgent the audience was of this.

As a professional campaigner, it is my job to whip up a bit of revolutionary zeal. I’m proud of the part I played in forcing Parliament to back down over its attempt to exempt its expenses from the Freedom of Information Act last month. But I’m aware that with such anger out there the chances of it resulting in actual riots (such as we saw in Greece at the end of last year) are starting to increase. The one thing violence on the streets is unlikely to result in is the a government u-turn on its anti-civil liberties agenda; quite the reverse. And the public; already whipped into a frenzy about crime, terrorism and immigration, will probably go along with that.

My big hope is that the Convention will wake people up to the wider agenda. If the agenda is purely negative – i.e. to stop the government attacking civil liberties and to scrap its existing agenda for a database state – then it will a) be less effective and b) fail to connect with this wider sense of dissatisfaction. We need to link the two, which means both talking about constitutional reform and a more engaged, proactive citizenry.

David Howarth’s Fixed Term Parliaments Bill

I’ve been highlighting this as part of my day job but haven’t said anything about it here. Anyway, David Howarth’s Fixed Term Parliaments Bill is being debated in the Commons tomorrow and you need to do something about it. Write to your MP about it and ask them to sign EDM 1528 – Fixed Term Parliaments. More details here and here. Meanwhile, here is David talking to that nice Mr Dale:

Is Nick Harvey happy being the unacceptable face of Parliament?

One thing that really bugs me is when people who clearly don’t know what they are talking about come up with fatuous excuses for not allowing reasonable requests. Nick Harvey MP, sadly, is a case in point. His response to Jo Swinson’s reasonable request for Parliament to allow video clips to be posted on YouTube and other websites was met by what can only be described as utter stupidity:

Mr Harvey, who is also a Lib Dem MP, replied that copyright of the pictures was an issue, as was the cost of filming.

He said the rules dated back to when cameras were first allowed into the chamber, in the 1980s.

MPs, he added, were allowed to use clips for their own website if they showed them speaking – or a reply from a minister to their own question.

They were not permitted to show clips on “any third-party hosting website”, however.

Mr Harvey said: “At the moment the rule is that the clips can be streamed to be viewed in real time, but not downloaded in such a way that they can be manipulated at a future point.”

How is this stupid? Oh let me count the ways. To start with, what is the precise difference between an MP’s website and a “third party hosting website”. Does that apply to ePolitix’s dreadful homepages for MPs? What about Prater-Raines, the hosting service most Lib Dems use for their own websites? What is the fundamental difference between them and a YouTube channel? I suspect you can count the number of MPs who host their own websites on the fingers of one hand.

Secondly, downloading footage on YouTube is the best way to prevent them from being “manipulated at a future point.” YouTube converts footage into flash files, which apart from usually being of low quality, cannot simply be imported into editing software in the way that windows media files and Quicktime files can be. If an MP hosts their own footage using these formats they are far more vulnerable to future manipulation. But it’s a daft reason anyway because if it is live streamed at any point, it can always be saved and manipulated in the future. Therefore, this is a reason to shut down BBC Parliament, not for disallowing films on YouTube.

What really bugs me about all this though is that we’ve already been through all this. Not long ago, Harvey’s committee was playing silly buggers over TheyWorkForYou and using very similar arguments for why this website should be shut down. The question over the use of footage could and should have been resolved then. They had another opportunity over the Puttnam Report. Three years down the line and they are still being obstructive. The House of Commons Commission was also where the dreadful Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill – happily defeated last year – came out of. And all this on the same day that the police rule out an inquiry over the Derek Conway scandal due to a “lack of systems in this case to account for MPs’ expenses.” Which committee is responsible for those systems? Step forward Mr Harvey.

In short, this committee consistently fights to defend the exclusive, clubable air of Parliament and blocks attempts at greater openness, transparency and accountability. It isn’t really Harvey’s fault that he is the unacceptable face of Parliament – it is the Commons as a whole that appoints this damnable committee. But after the last couple of months, it is perhaps time for a new broom. Such a shame that far from calling for this, Nick Clegg has been spending so much of his time of late defending the Speaker and thus the status quo. So much for being anti-establishment.

Comical Tommy’s War against Information

Via Iain Dale, I come across Tom Watson‘s spirited defence of his decision to back the Freedom from Information (none of your fucking business) Bill. Apparently, the Tories Made Him Do It. But, for a bit more detail, here is his argument point-by-point (I’d comment on his blog, but he banned me years ago):

1. If the speaker had not guaranteed that MP’s expenses will continue to be published, I would not have supported the Bill. I repeat – you will still be able to see the expense tables like you have been able to for the last three years.

This is a mischevious half-truth. The fact is there are currently numerous appeals to the Information Commissioner calling for MPs to disclose more detailed information. The Commons’ expenses disclosure isn’t even close to the Scottish Parliament where literally every single invoice is available to view online.

Note that he says “you will still be able to see the expense tables like you have been able to for the last three years” – in other words the detailed information about travel expenses published earlier this year as a result of a case brought forward by Norman Baker would be the first to go.

2. Despite people saying that there is protection under the Data Protection Act, public sector bodies are still revealing the private correspondence between them and MPs regarding constituents.

If it is illegal now and yet people are doing it, it follows that it will still happen if this new Bill is passed. How does passing another law stop people who are already breaking the law? The issue is enforcement – yet the government forces the Information Commissioner to get along with a shoestring budget.

3. This Bill was put forward by the former Tory Chief Whip. Don’t be fooled by the disingenous comments and synthetic outrage of Iain Dale and his chums. Incidentally, he seemed to know how many MPs from each party had voted on the Bill yesterday afternoon – before they are made available in Hansard. He can only have got this information from a source in one of the Whips offices (I’m certain the parliamentary clerks would not help him). This suggests to me that he is part of a Tory spin operation – understandable but funadamentally dishonest in regard to this piece of legislation.

This is worth looking at because it is simply hilarious. Like Iain Dale, I was following the debate on Hansard, which now has less than a three hour time lag. I certainly agree with Tom that the Tories were equally complicit, but I don’t extend that criticism to individuals like Richard Shepherd, John Redwood and, yes, Iain Dale, any more than I do Labour rebels like David Winnick. For Watson to try to blame the Tories for this Bill when Labour has a majority and three times as many of them voted for the Bill as Tories is just eye watering, Comical Tommy stuff.

4. Finally – If Menzies Campbell thought so strongly about this Bill, why wasn’t he there to speak and vote against it?

Because like most MPs he usually has constituency work on Fridays. We can’t all lounge around in Westminster ready to serve as government lickspittles at a moment’s notice.

If I wanted to sum up everything that I truly find deplorable about the Labour Party, it is Tom Watson. A dirty tricks campaigner par excellence, a House of Lords abolitionist (and simultaneously supporter of the status quo), anti-electoral reform, pro-compulsory voting, bemoans the civil liberty implications of RFID tags while voting enthusiastically for ID cards, die-hard Blairite loyalist right up until he can detect the wind has changed whereupon he attempts to orchestrate a coup for newfound best friend Gordon Brown, friends of even bigger moron Sion Simon… what it all adds up to is a nasty little man who is just a little bit too much in love with totalitarianism.

Oh, and if you haven’t done so already, join the Protect Freedom of Information Facebook Group.